The history of the church of Jesus Christ on earth is the history of particular men. This is not because the church belongs to men, or, less yet, because the affairs of the church are in the hands and under the control of men. Christ is the head of His church. From His position in glory, He executes all the will of God. He does this sovereignly so that nothing at all happens without His will and outside His powerful control. In the words of our own precious Heidelberg Catechism, Christ “from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to Himself by His spirit and word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life.” (Heidelberg Catechism, L.D.21, Q. and A. 54.) All that happens to the church is the work of Christ.
But Christ uses men. There is something miraculous about this. For the men whom Christ uses are nothing else but mere men. They are men of distinct personalities with individual foibles and quirks of character. They are men who are not always the most pleasant and agreeable. They are, above all, sinful men. Apart from the work of grace, they are as sinful as any men that ever lived. Their regeneration and conversion and sanctification, while it makes them men of God and saints in the church, nevertheless does not free them yet from the same sinful nature which is the burden of all God’s people. Even in the work of the church, they are not perfect. They have only a small beginning of the new obedience. They also confess, along with the rest of God’s people, that their best works are corrupted and polluted by sin. Their sons enter into their work-also their work within the church of Jesus Christ. They do the work given them, but they do this work with all their shortcomings, all their weaknesses, all their transgressions of the holy law of God, a necessary part of their task. It would seem that sinful people would always spoil the work of Christ and make that work non-effective. For, after all, the work of the gathering, defense and preservation of the church is a most holy work. It involves nothing less than the salvation of the elect and redeemed people of God. It involves nothing less than the preservation of the cause of Christ and His truth in the world. It involves the shepherdizing of Christ’s sheep. It involves the preservation of these sheep and their spiritual preparation for the perfection of heaven. Such a holy task, it would seem, cannot be carried on by sinful men.
Yet it is. This is a most astonishing fact. For the work which Christ himself performs is sometimes performed in spite of these sinful men; it is often performed in such a way that even their sins are turned for good in the cause of the church; it is always performed through them.
But we must not be misled into thinking that therefore, after all, the work of the church is a cooperative venture between Christ and the men who labor on behalf of the cause of Christ. It is not that way. These very men are Christ’s instruments. They are completely Christ’s instruments. They are such, often beyond their won ability to understand this. Luther, e.g., often spoke of being carried forward by a power greater than himself, which he could not even understand. So it always is. These men are chosen by God already from all eternity. They are chosen as distinct individuals with their own peculiar characters and personalities, with their own individual gifts and powers. It is determined for them by God from all eternity, that they should make their appearance on the scene of history at God’s appointed time and in God’s appointed place and in the midst of circumstances which are sovereignly determined by Him Who rules over all. They are saved by sovereign grace. They are appointed to a place in the church by divine appointment. They are assigned their work by Christ with an assignment which cannot be rejected, which must be and is carried out; for they are impelled in all their labors by the power of the Lord and King of the church.
There is wisdom about this which defies understanding. God know what kind of man is needed for what kind of task in any given moment in history. He knows this perfectly and never makes any mistakes. So, at the proper time in history, at exactly the correct moment in the ongoing stream of the church’s life, God places men who are, in all their spiritual, physical and psychological makeup, exactly fitted for precisely the work the Lord wants them to do. They are the right men at the right moment – not by fortuitous fate, but by wisdom, a wisdom that transcends our earthly understanding.
To do any reading at all in the history of the church of Christ is to be impressed with the perfect accuracy of the judgment of God in this respect. To mention but a few of those whom history cherishes and whose memories have been kept alive in the minds and hearts of the saints; there was the aged Polycarp who literally loved not his life unto death in the fierce days of persecution by Rome’s Caesars. There was the noble Athanasius who suffered exile no less than five times, who sometimes seemed to stand all alone in the battle of the truth when the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ was repeatedly attacked. There was Augustine, brought out of immorality and pagan religion, to combat the horrible heresy of Palagius and to lay the groundwork of the salvation of the elect by sovereign grace. There was Gottschalk who raised a lonely voice of protest against Roman Catholic error as he rotted in prison in defense of the truth of double predestination. And who of us does not know of Luther, of Calvin, of Knox, and all the other reformers who stood against the might of Rome to bring the church back to the truth of the Scriptures?
But each was a different kind of man; and yet, just because he was different, he was perfectly suited for the work which had been assigned to him. The work which each did was beyond doubt a work which could not possibly have been done without Christ Who does His work in gathering, defending and preserving His church against the gates of hell. These men were sinners. They themselves would be the first to confess it. They were also heroes of faith. They were stalwart men of God. They feared no one but God Himself. They were courageous with a courage which staggers the imagination. They loved the truth with a love which led them into the gravest dangers which men could face. They looked at these dangers with unflinching face. They would not compromise nor sacrifice the truth. They would not turn back in the day of battle. They accomplished the impossible. Because they feared God, they feared no man. And they did this because Christ uses men. The history of the church is the history of such men.